Bela Fleck Pushes Limits of the Banjo

Improvisation on Stephen Foster's 'Oh! Susanna'

bela fleck

hide captionBela Fleck warms up for his appearance on From the Top.

Eight-time Grammy Award winner Bela Fleck was fascinated with the banjo from an early age, but his teachers kept pushing him to play other instruments. Luckily, he kept up with the banjo — when he wasn't being forced to sing tenor or play the French horn. Fleck continues to push the limits of the instrument with his improvisation on the Stephen Foster favorite, 'Oh! Susanna.'

Bela Fleck's Musical Beginnings, In His Own Words

Bela Fleck

hide captionBela Fleck prepares for a performance on From the Top.

From the Top

When I was a little kid, maybe four or five, I heard the Beverly Hillbillies on television, and I had one of those moments when time stops. I didn't know what it was, but it was like quicksilver or mercury in my head, every note sort of hitting some weird place in there. It took me a long time before I actually got a banjo, but from that moment on I was conscious of that sound.

I grew up in New York City and went to the High School of Music and Art, which was kind of like the Fame school. Literally the day before I started high school, my grandfather gave me a banjo because at that time there was a movie out called Deliverance and a song called "Dueling Banjos," which made the banjo suddenly a very popular instrument again in the United States, which it hadn't been for a good while.

I got into the school playing "Here Comes the Sun," which I could finger-pick on guitar, and they said, 'OK, we'll put you on a real instrument.' So they put me on French horn, which didn't work out too well. The first thing I was told was to work on playing an F, and I could never get it. I could never make a sound out of the instrument. Eventually they moved me into the chorus because they needed tenors. If I were a vocalist I'd really be a baritone so I wound up screaming my way through high school. Meanwhile, [outside of school] I was putting in hours and hours a day playing the banjo, and that was really exciting for me.

I loved the Beatles. They continually grew, and I thought that was what you did if you were a musician and artist, you constantly looked for new things to do. I was a kid in the sixties, and all of our heroes were musicians, whether it was the Beatles or later on it was Frank Zappa. Ravi Shankar got really popular there for a while, too. Having an incredible musical experience was something to be really excited about, and eventually I started going to hear people play. I got to hear Chick Corea and Return to Forever play at the Beacon Theater, and that just twisted my brain because when I watched those guys play their instruments, I realized that all the notes they were playing were on the banjo, too — I just had to find them and figure out a way to play that repertoire on the banjo. So that's what I set out to do.

I also had a great teacher who was the most modern banjo player at that time, a guy named Tony Trishka, and a lot of what I got came from watching him. What he did was very inspiring.

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